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As good as his word;Book of the week;Books

HENRY JAMES: A Life in Letters. Edited by Philip Horne. Allen Lane pound;25.

At his death, Henry James had written at least 40,000 letters. D J Taylor looks at what 300 of them tell us about the writer In one of the many faintly jaundiced letters that he exchanged with Leonard Woolf during the post-war boom in Bloomsbury studies, Noel Annan once suggested that a prospective biographer "should be warned that letters, and even diaries, do not necessarily reflect the inner man".

However unexceptionable as a piece of professional advice, this kind of injunction is nevertheless the equivalent of a cold sponge applied to the back of the average biographer's neck. To be told, having waded through the stacked correspondence of some Victorian writer, that there may after all be better guides to your subject's interior life can be a deeply unsettling experience. It also tends to take the edge off the sheer excitement of delving into the crannies of a long-disappeared literary life.

With Henry James, the task of relating the letters to the life and ensuring that neither crowds the other out takes on an importance that doesn't always attach itself to a Dickens or a Thackeray. James, as even the student of Leon Edel's mammoth five-volume biography may admit, was a tricky customer: elusive, guarded, forever balancing outward surrender with an enduring reluctance to give himself away. At the time he clearly regarded his vast correspondence as an integral part of both life and art, took pains with it (he once called letter writing "the struggle of my life") and treated its practicalities with an altogether Jamesian self-consciousness. The secretary who worked for James late in his life emerged from his study exclaiming "I do enjoy his letter-writing mornings!", which suggests an aesthetic experience that went beyond the author himself.

Like many prolific Victorian correspondents, James enjoyed pretending that he delivered himself of only the flimsiest notes. A letter to H G Wells from 1902, for example, puts his recent silence down to exhausting efforts to finish a book, at which time "my correspondence then shrinks amp; shrinks - only the least explicit of my letters get themselves approximately written".

In fact, as his indefatigable editor Philip Horne swiftly demonstrates, this is complete nonsense. In a career spanning nearly 50 years and ending only a month or two before his death in 1916, James probably compiled around 40,000 written communications, of which the 300 or so printed here form only the tiniest fraction.

In common with nearly everything James wrote, what follows is an exercise - a protracted and not always decipherable exercise - in sensibility. Even a very early letter to Thomas Sergeant Perry, written during his days at the Harvard Medical School in the 1860s, has some brisk opinions to impart about current literary schemes and their probable realisation.

Later items, whether sent back from the young man's tours around Europe or celebrating his acceptance into late-Victorian literary society, represent an inexhaustible mining of lifelong Jamesian preoccupations - art and the artist, the New World and the Old, and the moral consequences of the latter's intermingling.

For all the lofty re-statements of principle and the occasional hieratic flourishes, the practical consequences of being a writer are always sharply to the fore, and there are some revealing glimpses of dealings with publishers. Frederick Macmillan was "everything that's friendly", James told his brother William, "but the delicious ring of the sovereign is conspicuous in our intercourse by its absence".

A blunt but typically amiable earlier letter finds him turning down Macmillan's offer of pound;70 for The Tragic Muse, and announcing that he is going elsewhere (in the end this threat never materialised) "but with the sustaining cheer of all the links in the chain that remain still unbroken".

However candid about pressing matters of art and philosophy, James's caution over the vexed question of himself can sometimes be rather disconcerting. No one is obliged to discuss their innermost desires in print, of course, but there is a pervasive sense here of someone stalking himself through the thickets of an enigmatic bachelor life, catching the odd, revealing glimpse of some private misgiving, and then hastening away. No doubt the grand bonfire of 1910 in which he destroyed retrieved correspondence saw off anything that James thought remotely compromising.

Philip Horne's selection, drawing on many unpublished sources and further enlivenedby biographical linking passages, is consistently engrossing, even if one could wish for more (or in the latter case anything at all) from friends like A C Benson and Thackeray's daughter, Anne Thackeray Ritchie.In his introduction, Horne talks about wanting to "refashion"the long dead "life-and-letters" genre which embalmed many a Victorian notable.

Sympathetic, scholarly, and with a knowing eye for the eternal Jamesian sense of "self", Henry James: A Life in Letters is a successful attempt to use late-Victorian biographical techniques to achieve a thoroughly modern objective.

D J Taylor's biography of Thackeray will be published by Chatto in September.

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